The first contested general election mayoral candidate forum in Athens in recent history was fittingly a contentious affair, with incumbent Mayor Steve Patterson, a Democrat, facing off against challenger Damon Krane, an independent and Democratic socialist.
In opening statements given during the forum at the Athens Public Library before a capacity audience of roughly 70 people, Krane and Patterson struck the tone that would be set for the night.
You can watch a stream of the event here on the City of Athens' Facebook page.
Patterson highlighted his history as a “public servant” – he’s a former City Council member, Ohio University associate professor of psychology and served with the U.S. Air Force – who said he has worked as mayor to bring business, university and community interests together in the city to strive for a common goal. He also highlighted his endorsements from the Central Labor Council of Southeast Ohio and AFSCME Ohio, as well as receiving the “Elected Official of the Year” award from the National Association of Social Workers.
Patterson noted that he has the ability to recognize when the city makes mistakes, and learn and grow from them.
“A public servant serves,” Patterson said. “Public service is not self-service, where your interests come become before the community.”
Meanwhile, Krane said he wanted to show people that he’s more than just the “anti-slumlord guy,” and highlighted his history as an activist in the area for the past 24 years, advocating on behalf of “ordinary, disempowered people.” He moved to Athens 20 years ago to coach Nelsonville-York High School students on how to create a newspaper called Lockdown, he said, which survived the school district’s attempts at censorship. He also cited a long history of organizing OU students and Athens residents, with one major series of direct actions forcing the university to get in compliance with the federal Clery Act laws that involve reporting sexual assault.
Krane also co-founded the Athens Tenant Union, the Athens Mobile Vending Association,
and the Southeast Ohio chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
“Now I’m running for mayor on a platform that’s pro-tenant, pro-student, pro-environment, feminist, queer-positive, anti-racist and Democratic Socialist,” Krane said.
PATTERSON NOTED DURING the forum that the city faces significant challenges in coming years, which he described as OU’s decreasing enrollment and the effect that will have on local businesses; a need to continue to bring jobs and development to the area and “diversify the economy”; and a need to build more affordable housing in the city. The Athens County Economic Development Council and the Appalachian Regional Commission are two sources to help provide funds to encourage job creation, he said.
“There’s ways in which we can get funding for businesses to grow as long as they’re showing employment growth in the city,” Patterson said. “I’m also a firm believer in what will be an 88-mile bike trail system up in the Wayne National Forest. We’ll see a lot of tourism coming in.”
Krane described his main campaign proposal – termed “Operation Slumlord Smackdown” – throughout the forum as a means to crack down on landlords taking advantage of tenants, who Krane noted are 80 percent of the city’s residents, while asserting that many city officeholders are homeowners who earn “six-figure annual household incomes.”
Tenets of that platform include a proposal for rent control in Athens, a proposal to dramatically ramp up the city’s code enforcement staff by increasing fees for bad behavior on landlords and increasing rental permit costs, and ensuring prompt correction of rental-housing issues. Krane said landlords currently are given 45 days to correct those issues before the city even considers filing charges against them.
Krane also targeted the city’s Affordable Housing Commission plan currently being considered for adoption by City Council, which attempts to encourage construction of housing valued between $125,000 and $250,000. He slammed it as a way for the city to subsidize private development of homes that will remain out of reach for most working-class residents of Athens.
Patterson touted that plan as a way to help keep working professionals living in the city limits – and mentioned potential tools such as tax-increment financing (TIFs) for neighborhood development, including converting blighted housing to single-family homes.
THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL moments of the night came when Krane attacked Patterson and the status quo in the city.
When the candidates were asked about 2020 Democratic presidential candidates “refusing campaign contributions” and if they’d follow suit (the question wasn’t accurate – some 2020 Dem candidates are refusing “corporate” contributions), Krane argued that 96 percent of all of Patterson’s contributions in the last mayoral race (in which Patterson ran unopposed in the general election) came from “landlords, real estate developers or other business owners.”
“Forty percent of his entire donations came from John Wharton, who was voted worst landlord in Athens every single year The Athens NEWS polled readers on the subject,” Krane said. “Just this coming Friday, Alan McMillan, another major landlord and Trump supporter, will be organizing and fundraising a gala personally in his home for Mayor Patterson. These are pretty much the Koch Brothers of Athens. They are not my backers.”
Krane was referring to The Athens NEWS’ annual Best of Athens Readers’ Choice Awards survey, which included the category “Worst Landlord” for three years, from 2006-08. Wharton did place first each of those years.
Patterson responded that he did not think Krane had accurate numbers about his campaign contributions, and noted that the event Krane mentioned was not a “gala” but a “meet and greet.” Patterson added that some of the donations referenced came from a “beloved pizza maker” locally – referring to Avalanche Pizza’s John Gutekanst – but then pivoted to argue that he is “very receptive to criticism.”
“I will sit there and speak with people face to face about issues that are going on,” he said, calling himself a “community builder.”
McMillan attended Tuesday’s evening’s candidate forum and approached Krane after the forum, seemingly upset. McMillan called Krane “obnoxious” in a statement to this reporter soon after.
“I don’t put out publicly how I vote,” McMillan said. “My son was 16 years old and put a Trump sign in his bedroom window…. We’re not raising money on Friday. I thought the mayor personally has done a good job.”
Krane skipped his planned closing statements after Patterson’s response to his contention about his donations, and read off the public records he received from the Athens County Board of Elections showing donations to Patterson’s campaign from the 2015 general election. Krane said Patterson received $625 total in campaign contributions, $250 coming from Gutekanst, $250 coming from Wharton, $100 from local developer Bruce Wentworth and $25 from Athens resident Rose Dikis.
The NEWS earlier this week received a copy of Patterson’s campaign donations from the Board of Elections and confirmed those donations to Patterson’s 2015 primary campaign, based on a copy of the “post-primary” campaign finance records Patterson’s campaign filed at the elections board. That finance report also lists $381.16 “brought forward” from previous campaigns.
However, Patterson’s campaign filed additional records with the Board of Elections in a “pre-general” election 2015 report filed on Dec. 9, 2015. That includes a $250 donation from the Athens County Democratic Executive Committee, a $100 donation from Carolyn Lewis and $100 from Barbara Trube, as well as a number of “in-kind” contributions from several residents and business owners, including $200 from Patty Mitchell, $150 from Sean Kiser, and $150 from Jason Kopelwitz (you can see these records attached to this story)
Patterson noted in his closing statement that there’s a “difference between pre- and post-campaign filings” with the Board of Elections. He said he has a “proven track record” of working for everybody in the city of Athens.
“A pothole, a waterline, a sewer line, doesn’t see a letter behind the name of who is fixing it; it’s about getting the job done,” Patterson said.
Krane attacked Patterson in his closing statement for “spreading misinformation” earlier in the campaign cycle, highlighting the mayor telling The NEWS that the city’s Code Enforcement Office has six staffers conducting rental inspections, then upping that number to seven in a separate statement when asked about it. The city’s then-Interim Code Enforcement Director Lance Allison over the summer told The NEWS that only four code officers perform rental housing inspections (which Krane correctly stated previously).
Patterson in response to that question previously has said that the Code Enforcement Office has two solid-waste inspectors who do not perform rental inspections, but do “inspect properties” from outside as they go through city neighborhoods.
ANOTHER TOPIC OF DEBATE during the night included whether or not cities should consider ending the practice of police carrying firearms. Krane said that he favors “disarming and defunding police departments” in general.
“I am interested in enforcing housing law,” Krane said. “I don’t think we need any guns to do that.”
Patterson called that “fairly utopian,” and said he’s not in favor of any proposal to remove police’s firearms.
“There are cases in which they are needed absolutely,” Patterson said, referring to the recent mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. “…Had the police department not been able to arrive within 30-some odd seconds (in Dayton), I hate to think what would have happened.”
Both candidates also responded to this reporter’s question about increased reports of sexual assaults to the Athens and OU Police Departments in recent years, without a matched increase in people charged for those crimes.
Krane said everyone responding to those reports needs to be “trauma informed” and know how to adequately respond to those crimes.
If sexual assault survivors don’t feel they are being listened to, he added, “certainly we need to look at how the Police Department and the city Law Director’s office have been handling these reports and see if we can increase accountability.”
However, the city Law Director’s office does not handle most reports of sexual assault as they are felony-level crimes (though the city prosecutor would handle reports of sexual imposition) covered by the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office.
Patterson, meanwhile, said that Athens needs to work with “partners at OU” and the “National Association of Social Workers” to remove the stigma around sexual assault.
Survivors need to be encouraged to go and get rape kit tests completed at the hospital because they can be critical evidence in a law enforcement investigation, Patterson said.
However, it’s also important to note that in many of these cases, survivors are getting those tests done, but are simply refusing to talk to law enforcement after they’re done, which can hinder a case’s investigation.